After Pentecost and the establishment of the first church (Acts 2), it didn’t take long for conflict to arise in the church (not a big surprise for anyone who has ever been part of a church!). To resolve the conflict, the disciples choose seven Greek-speaking believers “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). It was a humble position, just manning the food bank…nothing special. Among the seven, we find Philip, and his story is my favorite in the New Testament. Take a look with me…
In the aftermath of Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7), believers in Jerusalem were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:2). Philip escaped Jerusalem and decided to go north, to a city in Samaria (or, to the city of Samaria, scholars aren’t sure which). That’s when things really started to rock-and-roll for him! Because it was just part of his self-identity, he shared his faith in Jesus, and God blessed him with some cool miracles. Before long, he was the leader of First Mega-Church of Samaria. Peter and John came up to check things out and gave it the Official Apostle Stamp of Approval. Yeah, everything was going good.
Until this one day…
Philip is just going about his business, maybe preparing his next sermon or going to visit a sick church member, when an angel appears to him. An ANGEL, people! (Interesting but unrelated fact: This is one of the rare appearances of an angel in the Bible who doesn’t say, “Don’t be afraid.”) The angel tells Philip to go south on the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. There are a few things we need to notice here.
Philip had a direction
but not a destination.
- The angel doesn’t say to go to Gaza; he says to go toward Gaza. Philip had a direction but not a destination.
- The angel doesn’t tell him why he was going or what he should do when he gets there. Just ‘Go south.’
- The angel doesn’t tell him what to do about his leadership position in Samaria.
- The angel doesn’t tell him how long he will be gone or what he should pack for the trip.
Does Philip ask about these things or show any hesitation? No…at least Luke didn’t record any objections. The text immediately says, So he started out (Acts 8:27). If Mark had written Acts, I might assume he left out some facts, but this is Luke; he likes the details. I don’t think there’s much here that we don’t know. Maybe he went home to tell his wife he was going on a little trip or maybe he grabbed a water bottle at a roadside stand, but that’s about it.
I heard a story once about a meeting of believers in China. During the meeting, one young woman stood up to say that she felt God was calling her to be a missionary to a village on the other side of the mountain. Everyone congratulated her, and the westerner in their midst praised God for her obedience. The next evening the group met again, but the young woman was absent. The westerner asked someone, “Where is the woman who committed to mission work? Why didn’t she come tonight?” The local man told him that the young woman had left earlier in the day to go to that village on the other side of the mountain. God called her, and she went. So did Philip. Delayed obedience is disobedience.
It’s about thirty miles from the city of Samaria to Jerusalem, then another fifty miles (according to my study Bible notes) to Gaza. If the average man walks about four miles per hour, Philip had been walking for at least eight hours, not counting rest and eating stops, to get somewhere south of Jerusalem. And he passed through Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin was persecuting followers of The Way. All that time, he doesn’t know why he’s doing this or where he’s actually headed.
Could you do that? I couldn’t. I need to know the whole plan before we start. In fact, I prefer it if I’m the one who makes the plan in the first place. I don’t even like surprise parties, much less whole trips! One of my children is like this, too. He always wants to know what’s happening later, or tomorrow, what we’re having for dinner, where we’re going this weekend. Too often, my exasperation overtakes me and I reply, “What difference does it make?” Yet I know I would be asking the same questions if I were him.
The fact that God doesn’t tell Philip the whole plan is significant. Maybe Philip, a Greek man, didn’t like Ethiopians or black people or eunuchs or rich people. Maybe he, remembering his days as a simple food bank volunteer, didn’t feel qualified to speak to an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means ‘queen of the Ethiopians’) (Acts 8:27). That could be intimidating. Maybe he was afraid the guy wouldn’t speak Greek well enough for them to converse. It could be anything. Don’t we look for any excuse?
In the Old Testament, God sometimes told people his plans. Remember Moses’ arguments at the burning bush (Exodus 3)? And what about Jonah? God told him, Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it (Jonah 1:2), but Jonah ran the other way. By not giving all the details, Philip had to practice trusting the Holy Spirit and he didn’t have a chance to protest or make excuses.
When I look back on my life, I’m astounded by some of the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done. If you’ve been following Christ for a while, you probably are too. If God had laid out His plans for my life when I was twenty… yes, I might have made a few better choices, but mostly, I would have run, throwing a “There ain’t no way!” over my shoulder as I headed out the door. It’s for His benefit and ours that He doesn’t tell us. He is more glorified in our obedience—especially in things we feel unqualified to do. And us? We learn our real limit (not our self-imposed limits) as we trust Him for more and more. It’s exhilarating!
Let’s leave Philip walking along the road for now. Come back next week for the second part of the story.